7

I've seen this question asked before but many years ago and no doubt much has changed in terms of software.

I find that a book comes together much faster and with a more coherent structure if I outline it.

However, I find outlining a dull and laborious chore and usually end up distracted, procrastinating, and then finally abandoning it to begin the novel.

Then, I get to the end of the first draft, realise what an incoherent mess it all is, and wish I'd outlined it properly.

What methods do you use/recommend for outlining a novel?

Have you used any software that makes it easy? Perhaps something with a draft chapter title, short synopsis, then notes on possible dialogue, events, scenes etc. I want a way that's quick, clean and easy; not a tool that's overly complex and designed for beginner writers who need lots of guidance with creating characters, arcs, setting, premise, etc.

I guess I could use Scrivener, but it seems heavy handed and voluminous for a chapter outline.

7

There are many ways of outlining. Here's a suggestion for those who have 'outline allergies'.

Write the first chapter (or the first two). This will get you inside the skin of the characters and will get you excited.

Now, pause and make a list of the main things you want to happen. Don't be detailed, but feel free to add a few details if they come to you.

eg.:
1. car breaks down (it belonged to MC's father; add a reference to it in a later dialogue)
2. meets X at garage
3. stuff happens that allows to flesh out MC
4. meets X again 1 month later; X starts stalking MC

Go back to writing. Once you write the first time MC and X meet, go back to the outline and see if you have more things to add. If not, carry on.

But once MC meets X again, maybe you decide X didn't start stalking now, but when they first met. Go back to the outline:

  1. car breaks down (it belonged to MC's father; add a reference to it in a later dialogue)
  2. meets X at garage; X starts stalking MC
  3. stuff happens that allows to flesh out MC
  4. meets X again 1 month later because X maneuvered the situation for the meeting to happen

Now get another piece of paper (or app) and make a timeline of how X went about the stalking. If this were a visual medium (film, comics...), you could go back and insert him in the background. If it's not visual, you can go back to the 'stuff happens' and fit in a scene where the MC is going to the cinema with a friend and that friend accidentally bumps into X, who is casually described (so as to meet X's original description) without being named (since the friend doesn't know X's name).

While doing the timeline, take the chance to get inside X's plans for the future and write them down in the outline. Then check what the MC's life has in store to see if X's events will be felt.

Go back to writing.


Cons

You have to keep going back and forth, rather than just flowing on and on.

You will very likely have to insert or change scenes you've written to foreshadow the new directions and avoid plotholes.

Pros

This approach gives you flexibility, since you aren't stuck with a rigid plotline from the beginning.

You don't have to do it all in one go, so it won't feel like it's bogging you down.

Going back and forth will help you avoid plotholes and create a tight narrative.


As for tools, this approach can be done using the basics (pen and paper) or advanced (timeline apps, etc).

One thing I'm partial to is writing one chapter per event with a short description of what has to happen. If I must mention something casual in a dialogue, I'll make that note in all the chapters where it could happen. Then I write the chapters (adding or deleting chapters as the narrative progresses) and, once that mention has been inserted somewhere, I go back and erase it from the overview-notes.

I also have a detailed timeline... which gets detailed only as I write. So I may start with two events and end up with 30 main events and 101 date references to birthdays, anniversaries, start/end of projects, etc. In this timeline, I may go so far as to make an entry for the times an object or person was referred to (if it's important to keep track of it), and the timeline not only keeps track of when (chronologically) but also of where (which chapter). As I write and I decide that Y must happen, whether in the past or the future, I go back to my timeline and insert the event, making the necessary adjustments to the rest of the events. This level of detail helps avoid plotholes.

Again, take it step by step instead of trying to outline all in one go.

Not advisable if going back and forth kills your creativity. In my case, feeling the narrative coming together, adding little details for foreshadowing and adjusting scenes, boosts my confidence and my enthusiasm with the project, which means my creativity also gets a boost.

  • Sara, I LOVE this idea! Thank you so much! I've never thought of outlining like this and knowing the type of writer I am, I can't believe it hasn't occurred to me to do it. The problem with outlining is it drains me creatively. I have to write to feel out the story and let it decide its direction. But then I inevitably get in a mess once it gets past 50,000 words. This is so simple, yet so effective for people like me who are allergic to outlines. You're a star! – GGx May 3 at 14:34
  • And bizarrely, I am writing about a stalker!!!! – GGx May 3 at 14:34
4

This is the question I have asked four and a half years ago. After trying both dedicated outliners and outlining in Scrivener, I find Excel (or in my case, Numbers) is the ideal tool for me.

My process is as follows:

  1. I collect ideas. These can be characters, situations, settings, images, songs, etc. Anything that for me has to do with my story.

    I note down ideas into a paper notebook I carry with my all the time. Before the next step, I transfer them all into a text file on my computer. Paper snippets (e.g. from newspapers) go into a paper folder. Image files, video, etc. go in a folder on my hard drive.

  2. I take pencil and paper and roughly map out the story and/or character arcs or throughlines I want to narrate. These can be changes in relationships. Goals thwarted and achieved. Anything that changes in my story.

    These maps look like graphs of lines that cross over each other. Sort of like this, only more complex and with lots of annotations.

  3. I put the "points" of the arcs into Numbers/Excel/spreadsheet software. That is, I describe the state at the beginning in the first cell, what changes in the second, how it turns out in the third. And so on. The points don't yet neccessarily coincide with traditional plot points, but the longer I write, the more often they do. If I have parallel arcs, I put them in parallel columns and put them in whatever chronological relation they have to each other.

    Visually, this part looks a lot like Scrivener's outliner view. The best outliner, in my opinion, is the one in Patchwork, an Austrian writing software. I have reviewed Patchwork in this answer. The outliner in Patchwork is very much like a spreadsheet software with some very useful additional timeline functions and a great integration into all the other parts of the writing process. Patchwork is the most versatile writing software I have seen, but also the ugliest and felt too bloated to me, especially since I do the idea collection and graphical story mapping on paper (a necessity for me). I write in Scrivener, which does the writing part perfectly.

  4. I "flesh out" the spreadsheet, adding to it (or referencing) all the ideas and things I have collected in step one, adding connections between parallel storylines, coming up with transtions, and whatever else may be missing.

    After this step, all the cells in my outline contain a brief summary of a chapter (or scene).

  5. I write.

The way I do it, the outling feels much like discovery writing to me, except that I don't do the spelling out part of that. I explore my mental landscape and discover my story much in the same way that I did it through discovery writing. The only difference is that I'm not always working chronologically and that I don't immerse myself as deeply as I would while acutally "living" the story through discovery writing. Still, it's very much fun and satisfying to me and almost the best part in my writing process.

This is the best process for me to turn out a "functional" novel. But discovery writing is still better in how intense the writing process feels for me and how close to my heart the outcome is. Outline writing, for me, is more of a job kind of thing; discovery writing is like masturbation: satisfying but not to be done in public.

Sorry for the quick reply. Hope it makes sense to you.

  • Now I'll just have to learn German... – Sara Costa May 3 at 13:58
  • @user10915156 Wow, you've just blown my mind! That's a lot of process. Somewhere between it feeling like a mind-numbing job and masturbating is what I'm looking for. The previous answers to this question and looking at software out there just goes to a level I neither need nor have the patience and energy for. If I don't find something super simple, I know I'm just going to get bored and write instead. But thanks so much for outlining all that. I'm sure it'll help others even if it's a bit much for me. – GGx May 3 at 14:23
  • @SaraCosta Literally LOLed! – GGx May 3 at 14:24
  • GGx@ I was serious, though. I've always wanted to learn the language. Now i've got extra motivation. :) – Sara Costa May 3 at 14:33
  • @SaraCosta I suspect learning German will be faster than learning Patchwork!! – GGx May 3 at 14:37
1

My tip to you is to come up with an template. You can get creative with it, but it's the only way that you can stay organized. List the title, a section for the characters, and then, depending on your structure (3-arch etc.), a layout for your story scenes. Even if it's just a loose template, it will work.

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